Florida’s state universities have endured layoffs of instructors, the elimination of some majors, rising tuition and skyrocketing enrollment during the recession years.
But as lawmakers conduct committee meetings in advance of the 2014 legislative session, they’re hearing that the budget picture is improving for Florida’s 12 universities.
That message is being delivered by the schools’ roster of well-paid lobbyists, whose ranks seem little affected by years of belt-tightening.
“The results of the past five years have been devastating,” said Tom Auxter, a University of Florida philosophy professor and president of the 7,000-member United Faculty of Florida, the union for higher-education instructors and staff.
“Maybe not everyone in the universities has been hit as hard as others,” he added. “But I don’t feel bad about university lobbyists. We need everybody involved in helping us bounce back.”
Still, the resilience of university lobbyists may spark questions about whether the brunt of university reductions has been borne chiefly by students – and not those at the highest levels of administration.
Until only a modest cost-of-living increase took effect last summer, tuition at Florida universities had climbed 72 percent the previous five years. Florida’s average $6,069 tuition rate last year was 41st highest among the nation’s public universities.
Statistics compiled by the State University System’s Board of Governors show that between 2007 and 2011, enrollment at Florida universities grew almost 10 percent, to 329,737 students.
Faculty-to-student ratios climbed slightly, but administrative positions experienced double-digit growth.
University officials say the influx of administrators is largely prompted by a reclassification of positions – with some existing jobs turned into executive and administrative staff, at times to meet federal requirements.
Some universities also say that despite salary levels, the lobbyist corps has not been immune to recession-era reductions.
“Between 2007 and 2012, government relations reduced its overall budget nearly 24 percent – the same as units across the university,” said Janine Sikes, an assistant vice-president at the University of Florida.
“Those reductions mostly came from operations and the shifting of responsibilities,” she added. “Like everywhere else on campus, we were forced to do more with less.”
But a Palm Beach Post review of salaries paid those registered to lobby the Legislature for state universities shows that their numbers have changed little in recent years.
The lineup endures even as Gov. Rick Scott in 2011, his first year in office, raised questions about administrator salaries that seemed better suited to corporate boardrooms than college campuses.
University of Florida President Bernard Machen’s compensation package that year of $834,562 placed him ninth among public university chiefs nationwide, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual survey.
Scott earlier this year renewed the focus on higher education salaries when an inspector general’s report recommended that Florida’s 28 colleges develop standardized guidelines for determining pay, benefits and other issues.
The report showed college presidents earned $144,000 to $630,000 last year. Palm Beach State College President Dennis Gallon was fourth highest in Florida, with $455,714 in salary and benefits.
Randy Hanna, chancellor of the Division of Florida Colleges, said proposed standards are expected to go to state officials by January.
State law limits college president salaries to $225,000 in state taxpayer money. Salaries are augmented through donations, foundations and other sources.
Scott posted the salaries of 52,000 employees of the state’s public universities just as schools were pushing for another round of tuition increases, which he opposed but failed to stop. The list has been recently updated.
Scott noted that when the first wave of salaries were made public, more than 2,600 employees across Florida universities each topped the governor’s then-$130,273 salary, an amount the multimillionaire former health care executive declines/ Scott instead collects a penny as his yearly pay.
Scott wouldn’t comment directly last week on lobbyist pay. But spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said, “Gov. Scott will continue to fight to hold the line on tuition to ensure higher education is accessible to as many families as possible.”
Some of the universities’ lobbyists have had their duties expanded in recent years, likely contributing to reported salary increases.
Several also play multiple roles, registering as lobbyists while also serving as a chief-of-staff, assistant vice-president, lecturer, or in the case of one, John Rock, the dean of Florida International University’s medical school.
New College of Florida lists only one person registered to lobby, its president, Donal O’Shea.
“I would hope that every dollar we allocate is maximized and used to fund what the universities and their board of trustees consider to be the highest priorities,” said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, chairman of the House education budget subcommittee.
One veteran lawmaker, who has drawn steady pitches for funding from the university lobbyist corps, said the tough economic times may have increased the value of those working Capitol hallways.
“It’s the price that may have to be paid,” said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, a member of the Senate Education Committee and its budget counterpart.
“There is a fierce demand for state dollars, and it’s important for universities to have someone who can quickly explain what a program is or why specific dollars are needed,” he added.
Most Florida lawmakers are already inclined to help their local universities, or the schools from which they graduated. Legislative hearings are frequently punctuated by lawmakers pledging allegiance to Gators, Seminoles, or even Florida Atlantic University’s Owls.
“But having an affinity for a university is a far cry from having the depth of knowledge needed to make a decision,” Simmons said. “That’s where lobbyists come in.”